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||Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996) - Josip Aleksandrovich Brodsky - Iosif Brodskii|
Russian-born poet and essayist who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987. As a poet Joseph Brodsky was largely traditional and classical. He dealt with moral, religious and historical themes, and often used mythological allusions. After moving to the United States, Brodsky wrote his poems in Russian and his prose works in English.
"The poet, I wish to repeat, is language's means for existence--or, as my beloved Auden said, he is the one by whom it lives. I who write these lines will cease to be; so will you who read them. But the language in which they are written and in which you read them will remain not merely because language is more lasting than man, but because it is more capable of mutation." (Brodsky in Nobel Lecture, 1987)
Brodsky was born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). His
father, Aleksandr Ivanovich Brodsky, was a photographer. Marya
Moiseevna Volpert, Brodsky's mother, was a bookkeeper; the family lived
mostly on her income. Both of his parents had a good education, but
just like everybody in the city ravaged by war they lived in a communal
apartment sharing a kitchen and a bathroom with neighbours.
Brodsky studied at schools in Leningrad to the age of 15. He then dropped out of
school and first went to work at the Arsenal defense plant. Between 1956 and 1962, he had some thirteen different
jobs. Not until he borrowed Saadi's Gulistan
from a public library at the age of sixteen he read no poetry other
than was assigned in school. The thought of writing had never
occurred to him, but by age seventeen, he could recite whole poems by
heart (Gavrila Derzhavin, Evgeniy Baratynsky, Aleksey Tolstoy, and
In the essay 'Less Than One' Brodsky tells that he began to despise Lenin already when he was in the first grade – "not so much because of his political philosophy or practice, about which at the age of seven I knew very little, but because of his omnipresent images which plagued almost every textbook, every class wall, postage stamps, money, and what not, depicting the man at various ages and stages of his life." (Less Than One: Selected Essays by Joseph Brodsky, paperback edition, 1987, p. 5) Everyone in his class knew that he was a Jew, but "seven-year-old boys don't make good anti-Semites," he later said. From the library of his uncle, who was a member of the Party, Brodsky found an illustrated, pre-revolutionary edition of Man and Woman, his first taste of the forbidden fruit. At the age of fourteen Brodsky applied for admission to a submarine academy, but because he was a Jew, he did not get in.
After Nikita Khrushchev speech at the 20th Party Congress of 1956, in which he unmasked the cult of personality and condemned the Stalinist encesses, a period of "thaw" occurred in the Soviet Union. Although after the Cuban missile crisis Khrushchev tried to close dissident voices, new ideas managed to emerge in literature and other cultural fields. Brodsky started to write poetry from the late 1950s, earning a reputation as a free thinking writer. He taught himself Polish so that he could read poetry that had never been translated into Russian. Brodsky also demonstrated considerable talent in rendering Russian translations of Donne and Marvell, and he read such Western authors as Kafka, Proust, and Faulkner through Polish translations. In the 1960s, he also translated 'Yellow Submarine' by The Beatles into Russian.
As a young man, Brodsky worked at many occupations, including
milling machine operator, stoker, and geologist-prospector. His output
as a freelance poet and self-taught translator did not gain the
approval of the authorities, although he never directly criticized the
government. Some of his love poems were devoted to Marina
Basmanova, a painter. Their stormy relationship lasted six years, ending in 1968 shortly after the birth of their son.
All of Brodsky's writings during this period appeared in samizdat (clandestine circulation) editions but was widely read. Brodsky's reputation made him a target for the secret police and he was convicted as a "social parasite". When the judge asked, "And who recognized that you are a poet? Who listed you among poets?" the poet replied according to Frida Vigdorova, a journalist, "No one. (Dispassionately.) Who listed me a member of the human race?" (St Petersburg: A Cultural History by Solomon Volkov, 2010, p. 477) Brodsky was sent to a mental institution, where he was wrapped in cold, wet sheets, a "cure" familiar from Jaroslav Hašek's The Good Soldier Schweik.
Among those, who rose to Brodsky's defense and called the trial illegal, was the composer Dmitri Shostakovich. Brodsky spent some time in Kresty, the most famous prison in the Soviet Union. In the official record he was characterized to be "less than one". It became the title for Brodsky's collection of essays, which was published in 1986. Brodsky was sentenced to five years of hard labour. He spent eighteen months in the village of Norenskaya, three hundren and fifty miles from Leningrad. While in exile, he was vivited by his mother and his friends, including the poet Dmitry Bobyshev, who stole his girlfriend, Marina. Brodsky's sentence was commuted in 1965 after protests by such prominent cultural figures as the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and the poet Anna Akhmatova, the anti-Stalinist icon, who was his close friend. They first met in 1961 at her dacha in Komarovo.
During Brodsky's time in prison a collection of his poems, Stikhotvoreniya i poemy, was issued in 1965 by an American publisher in New York. "I had a sensation of something completely ridiculous having happened," Brodsky said later. ('Interview with Iosif Brodsky' by Michael Scammell, in Joseph Brodsky: Conversations, edited by Cynthia L. Haven, 2002, p. 11) Also Ostanocka v pustyne (1970) was published abroad. In it Brodsky turned his back on the clichés of the socialist realism and drew on the literary tradition on his search for search for new poetic possibilities.
After reading a poem by Brodsky, Akhmatova wrote in her diary:
"Either I know nothing at all or this is genius." (Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life by Lev Losev, 2011, p. 60) Officials declared
that Brodsky had "produced a body the system found alien enough to
reject". In 1972 Brodsky was forced to exile from the USSR. He never
saw his parents, and he was separated from his his four-year-old son,
Andrei. His love poems,
dedicated to his wife, Brodsky collected in Novyje Stansy k Avguste
(1983). In 1990 Brodsky married in the Stockholm City Hall his student, Maria
Sozzani, whom he had met in France. Their daughter, Anna, was born in 1993. Brodsky
was happy in his newfound family life, but his heath had been declining
from the late 1970s and in the 1980s he was often hospitalized.
With his suitcase, made in China, Brodsky first first went to Vienna. The poet W. H. Auden and Carl Proffer, a professor of Slavic languages at the University of Michigan, who had met Brodsky in Leningrad, helped him to emigrate to the United States. Proffer's publishing house Ardis several volumes of Brodsky's verse. He worked as a visiting professor at several universities, including the University of Michigan, Queen College, City University of New York, Columbia University, New York University, Smith College, Amherst College, Hampshire College, Mount Holyoke College.
While in exile, Brodsky traveled extensively. In 1972, he
visited Venice for the first time. He returned there again and again
and recorded his impressions of those trips in Watermark
(1992). The American writer Susan Sontag once remarked that Venice was
ideal place to bury Brodsky, since it was essentially nowhere. They had
met 1977 and went together to meet Ezra Pound's
widow Olga Rudge. Brodsky had translated his poems into Russian as a
young man. "The
translations were trash, but came very close to being published,
courtesy of some crypto-Nazi on the board of a solid literary magazine
(now, of course, the man is an avid nationalist)," he
recalled. (Watermark by Joseph Brodsky, paperback edition, 1993, p. 70)
Olga claimed that her husband wasn't an anti-Semite: he had a lots of
Jews among his friends. "Even Mussolini wasn't such an anti-Semite. In
fact, he had a Jewish admiral here in Venice." (Conversations with Joseph Brodsky: A Poets Journey Through The Twentieth Century by Solomon Volkov, 1998, p. 195) Brodsky's
Watermark has inspired
the film Veden peili (2012)
by the Finnish writer and photographer Rax Rinnekangas.
many years, Brodsky rented an apartment on Morton Street,
in New York City. While staying in London in 1987 and having a lunch
with the spy novelist John le Carré in a little Chinese restaurant,
Brodsky learned of his Nobel award. "He looked miserable," Le Carré
recalled. Nevertheless, outside the restaurant he gave Le Carré a big
Russian hug and said, "Now for a year of being glib." (Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life by Lev Losev, 2011, p. 234)
With his Nobel Prize money, Brodsky renovated his New York apartment. After the repairs were finished, his landlord needed it for himself and his wife, a Finnish doctor. However, Brodsky liked New York: "... for very well balanced people, it's probably a bad place but for masochists like me, it's OK." ('The Muse in Exile: Conversations with the Russian Poet, Joseph Brodsky' by Anne-Marie Brumm, in Joseph Brodsky: Conversations, edited by Cynthia L. Haven, 2003, p. 30) In 1977 Brodsky became a U.S. citizen and in 1991-92 he was America's Poet Laureate. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, but resigned in protest over the honorary membership of the Russian poet Evgenii Evtushenko in 1987 – he considered Evtushenko a party yes-man.
Brodsky died of a heart attack on January 28, 1996, in New
Brodsky's parents were never allowed to travel to the West to see him;
they died in Leningrad. In his essays about his parents in Less
(1986) the author explained: ''I write this in English because I want
to grant them a margin of freedom: the margin whose width depends on
the number of those who may be willing to read this. I want Maria
Volpert and Alexander Brodsky to acquire reality under "a foreign code
of conscience," I want English verbs of motion to describe their
movements. This won't resurrect them, but English grammar may at least
prove to be a better escape route from the chimneys of the state
crematorium than the Russian.'' (Less Than One: Selected Essays by Joseph Brodsky, paperback edition, 1987, p. 460)
Like several dissident Russian poets, Brodsky intended his
recital rather than for silent reading. Existential problems are dealt
in such poems as 'Isaak i Avraam' (1963), which was based on the Old
Testament story, and 'Gorbunov i Gorchakov' (1965-68), in which Brodsky
fills a madhouse conversation of two patients with references to
literature and history. Later works reflected the poet's idea of the
coming of a post-Christian era, during which the antagonism between
good and evil is replaced by moral ambiguity. Other favorite themes
were loss, suffering, exile, and old age. In his new home country
Brodsky did not feel complete secure – disturbing visions penetrated
into his mind even in peaceful Cape Cod: "in formal opposition, near
and far, / lined up like print in a book about to close, / armies
rehearsed their games in balanced rows / and cities all went dark as
caviar." (in Lullaby of Cape Cod, 1975) He
also recognized in the work of Robert Frost tones darker than his image
as the "folksy, crusty, wisecracking old gentleman farmer" would
suggest. (On Grief And Reason: Essays by Joseph Brodsky, 1995, p. 224)
"Still, if sins are forgiven,
an essayist Brodsky started in the 1970s, writing first in
Russian. He soon switched to English, but never fully mastered the
language. Sir Isaac Berlin, his friend, said after attending Brodsky's
lecture at the British Academy in October 1990 that "No one understood
a thing . . . nor did I. He was speaking English quickly, swallowing
his words. And I couldn't catch it, couldn't quite understand what he
was saying." (Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life by Lev Losev, 2012, p. 222)
Brodsky was a regular contributor to the New York
Review of Books, Partisan Review, and The Times
He wrote mostly about literature, evaluating Auden as "the greatest
mind of the twentieth century" and Osip Mandelshtam "a poet of and for
civilization". Language was for him a vehicle of civilization, superior
to history, living longer than any state. Poems are a vehicle to
restructure time – poets should keep language alive ''in the light of
conscience and culture.''
Brodsky finished in his lifetime two collections of essays. Less Than One explored the works of Marina Tsvetayeva, Anna Akhmatova, Mandelshtam, Auden, Derek Walcott, C.P. Cavafy, and Eugenio Montale. On Grief and Reason (1995) includes tributes to his favorite poets Frost, Hardy, and Rainer Maria Rilke. In one essay Brodsky claimed that after the Great Patriotic War theatres showed Hollywood films – war booty from Germany – and that Tarzan films influenced the dissolving of the Stalin cult more than Nikita Khrushchev's speeches.
For further reading: The Man Who Brought Brodsky into English: Conversations with George L. Kline by Cynthia L. Haven; with an afterword by Valentina Polukhina (2020); Joseph Brodsky and Collaborative Self-translation by Natasha Rulyova (2020); Brodsky Among Us: a Memoir by Ellendea Proffer Teasley (2017); Brodsky Translating Brodsky: Poetry in Self-translation by Alexandra Berlina (2014); Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life by Lev Loseff (2011); Seisahdus erämaassa: elämäkertaa ja kirjoituksia Joseph Brodskysta by Jukka Mallinen (2010); Brodsky through the Eyes of his Contemporaries, Vol. 2 (1996-2008) by Valentina Polukhina (2010); Joseph Brodsky: Conversations, ed. Cynthia L. Haven (2002); The Poet As Traveler: Joseph Brodsky in Mexico and Rome by Alice J. Speh (2003); Through the Poet's Eye: The Travels of Zagajewski, Herbert, and Brodsky by Bozena Madra-Shallcross (2002); Joseph Brodsky and the Soviet Muse by David MacFadyen (2000); Styles of Ruin: Joseph Brodsky and the Postmodernist Elegy by David Rigsbee (1999); Joseph Brodsky and the Baroque by David Ward Macfadyen (1999); Conversations With Joseph Brodsky by Solomon Volkov (1998); Joseph Brodsky and the Creating of Exile by David M. Bethea (1994); Brodsky Through the Eyes of His Contemporaries by Valentina Polukhina (1992); Joseph Brodsky by Valentina Polukhina (1989). - Note: In his collection of essays, On Grief and Reason (1995), Brodsky found from his exile and from his relationship to Leningrad similarities with Ovidius's Rome, Dante's Firenze, and Joyce's Dublin. The text was written in 1987. When receiving his Nobel Award, Brodsky named Osip Mandelstam, Marina Tsvetajeva, Robert Frost, Anna Ahmatova, and W.H. Auden as the better qualified poets, who should stand at the ceremonies. Suomeksi Brodskylta on myös julkaistu runokokoelmat Joulutähti (1999) sekä Keskustelu taivaan asujaimen kanssa (1995), kummatkin on valikoinut ja suomentanut Jukka Mallinen